- Ethiopia was not a party to the Nile treaties and sees them as obsolete.
- The GERD is expected to produce more than 5,000 megawatts of electricity, with the first two turbines projected to produce 750 megawatts.
- Ethiopia carries about 86 per cent of the total flow of the Nile contributing a larger share of the Nile waters with its three tributaries, the Blue Nile, Sobat and Atbara.
The flow of the River Nile has been nothing but winding, peacefully meandering its way downstream, oblivious of the decade-old tension that besieges its much-needed waters.
Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia are neighbours that have been embroiled in a row over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) by Ethiopia on the Blue Nile causing a diplomatic standoff among the countries.
Being the longest river in Africa, the Nile bears paramount significance across several African nations that continue to be a source of life and wealth to generations stretching across centuries from early civilizations. The Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia, accounts for more than 80 per cent of the river’s water after it meets the White Nile outside Khartoum, Sudan’s capital.
Together they flow across northern Sudan and Egypt to the Mediterranean.
The construction of the GERD began in 2011 and is set to be Africa’s largest hydroelectric project when completed. The US$5 billion dam will be invaluable to the power generation capacity and the economic development of Ethiopia ultimately geared towards bringing electricity to millions of its citizens that have for long suffered power shortages, sometimes hobbled by power rationing and ultimately eradicating poverty.
It is expected to produce more than 5,000 megawatts of electricity, with the first two turbines projected to produce 750 megawatts increasing national output by an estimated 20 per cent. The achievement of this milestone is viewed as a unifying national symbol amid the ongoing crisis in the Tigray region.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is expected to start producing 700 megawatts of electricity in 2022; a major boost to the country’s installed power generating capacity by 14 per cent, which currently has a total installed power generating capacity of about 4,967 MW.
Whilst the massive project is essential to Ethiopia, it does not augur well with Egypt and Sudan with the latter viewing it as an existential water security threat as it relies on the Nile for 97 per cent of its freshwater for consumption and irrigation purposes; the former expressed concerns over the disruption of its water supply and the operation of its own Nile dams and water stations.
Ethiopia has been accused of acting unilaterally with tripartite negotiations over the dam between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan having stalled for years. Hitherto, Egypt and Sudan continue to demand that Ethiopia should sign a fair and legally binding agreement to ensure that a just solution is reached against the intransigence from Ethiopia, on the filling and operation of the GERD.
Negotiations between the three countries have reached an impasse, with no set date in sight for their resumption. Egypt and Sudan have urged Ethiopia to put into consideration the significance of the transboundary dimension when developing shared waters, which requires coordination, consultation and information exchange to jointly manage resources through a legally binding agreement.
Roots of the Tension and Status Quo
Disagreements have been rife from the onset of the filling and operation of the GERD. An upstream country in the Nile Basin, Ethiopia carries about 86 per cent of the total flow of the Nile contributing a larger share of the Nile waters with its three tributaries, the Blue Nile, Sobat and Atbara.
The downstream nations fear possible blows to water facilities, agricultural land and overall availability of Nile waters. The GERD has turbines of about 5100 MW; it has more than two times the energy-generating power of the nearest major hydropower dam, the High Aswan Dam in Egypt which was commissioned 50 years ago.
The GERD project, therefore, challenges Egypt’s historical hegemonic position on the Nile basin.
Egypt claims a historic right to the Nile dating from a 1929 treaty that gave it veto power over construction projects along the river. A 1959 treaty boosted Egypt’s allocation to around 66 per cent of the river’s flow, with 22 per cent for Sudan.
Ethiopia was not a party to those treaties and sees them as obsolete.
In 2010, the Nile basin countries excluding Egypt and Sudan, signed another deal, the Co-operative Framework Agreement, which allows projects on the river without Cairo’s agreement. In 2015, the three countries signed the Declaration of Principles, which stipulated that the downstream countries should not be negatively affected by the construction of the dam.
Talks under the auspices of the African Union (AU) failed to yield a three-way agreement on the dam and reached a deadlock in April 2021. Despite demands from Cairo and Khartoum that Addis Ababa ceases to fill the massive reservoir until a deal is reached, Ethiopia unilaterally commenced with the second filling of the dam in May 2021 arguing that filling it is part of the construction process and cannot be stopped.
Efforts to resolve the dispute have reached a dead end and a fear of a military conflict erupting in the region had risen in July 2021 but was quelled later in September, by the seeming readiness for the resumption of negotiations to mediate a solution to end the stalemate.
Ethiopia has repeatedly assured Egypt and bordering downstream country Sudan that the dam, which will massively contribute to economic development, would not negatively affect them. It says that building and running the GERD was a sovereignty issue in which outsiders should not interfere.
Egypt and Sudan have requested that the negotiation mechanism include the UN, the European Union and the US alongside the AU but Ethiopia declined insisting for negotiations to only be held under AU sponsorship.
The president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi said such an agreement would guarantee Ethiopia’s development goals as well as limit the water, environmental, social, and economic damages of the dam to the downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan.
During the 2021 Cairo Water Week, Egyptian Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohamed Abdel-Aty, noted that Egypt has set up preventive measures to protect it in the event that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) collapses; by establishing the strongest infrastructure system around the High Dam in Aswan, that can absorb large quantities of water before it reaches Lake Nasser in a short and unspecified time.
The UN Security Council issued a statement in mid-September on the GERD dispute encouraging Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to resume negotiations under the President of the African Union to finalize a mutually acceptable binding legal agreement at last.
Sudan is not oblivious to some benefits that it looks to gain from the GERD, pertinently in power generation. However, Khartoum seeks guarantees and real-time data on the dam’s operations to ensure that its own power-generating dams on the Blue Nile continue to operate efficiently to avoid ruinous floods, including the Roseires, Sudan’s largest.
The third stage-filling of the mega-dam, which was expected to begin engineering works in November, will inarguably escalate the tension if no agreement is reached.
The promise of the GERD for Africa
Looking beyond the dispute, how will the GERD impact not only Ethiopia and the countries along the Nile Basin but the continent as a whole?
Inarguably with co-operation and coordination from affected parties, the benefits of the GERD will reverberate across the East African region being the largest hydropower facility in Africa. Consequently, the entire continent will additionally gain thereby promoting integration and the spirit of Pan Africanism. Upon completion, Ethiopia is projected to become a middle-income country by 2025.
In 1991, Ethiopia was among the poorest in the world having endured a devastating famine and civil war in the 1980s and by 2020 it was one of the fastest-growing economies in the world averaging 9.9 per cent of broad-based growth per year.
The GERD will help secure the future water supply not only in the Nile Basin but in the entire region, thereby curbing the occurrence of severe drought and famine.
The GERD will quadruple the amount of electricity produced in the country and millions of Ethiopians will have access to electricity for the first time which is an estimated 76 million people. Currently, over 66 per cent of Ethiopia’s 115 million citizens lack power. The surplus electricity produced by the GERD will be a steady source of income, generating 6000 MW of electricity, which is more than Ethiopia needs.
The Ethiopian government expects to export power to neighbouring nations, including Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, Sudan and South Sudan.
The GERD is a valuable tool to advance regional trade and economic integration. Ethiopia will be able to export electric power to Eastern African countries that are connected to the Eastern Africa Power Pool.
Access to electricity is an integral driver of poverty reduction, economic growth, and industrial production. In addition, the GERD will assist in alleviating the loss of revenue that businesses in East Africa face due to electric power interruption. Among the three countries involved in the GERD negotiation, Ethiopia loses the most at 6.9 per cent, Egypt at 6 per cent and Sudan at 1.2 per cent.
Even a reduction of these losses by half would lead to significant economic gains in these countries, potentially contributing to improvements in productivity, employment creation and export performance.